“Machali” in Hindi means fish but for regular visitors to Ranthambhore Machali is the resident tigress of the area around the Ranthambhore fort. This area is one of the most scenic parts of Ranthambhore, where three of the six lakes of Ranthambhore are located. Machali is by far the most famous tigress of Ranthambhore and one of the most photographed tiger in the entire world. She has starred in a number of documentaries – the best known of which is “Danger in tiger’s paradise” by the BBC Wildlife Division. I had the good fortune of being part of the crew that made this documentary.
Machali was actually the name of her mother, who died about four years ago, but in the BBC documentary, she was mistakenly called Machali and the name stuck on. Her mother was known as Machali because she had a mark on her right cheek that looked like the outline of a fish. The most famous mark that our Machali has is a fork like mark on her left cheek.
Machali territory lies at the very heart of Ranthambhore around the Ranthambhore fort. This area has a mix of different kinds of habitats, ranging from wetlands to valleys to plateaus and also has the highest concentration of prey species. Machali’s territory also has some of the highest human pressure, not just of tourists who come to see the wildlife but also of the large number of pilgrims who walk up to the fort to visit the Ganesh temple. Once in a year, for a period of three days over 500,000 people visit this temple. As a result Machali is very tolerant of humans. I have personally seen her sitting on a rock face for over an hour, watching a stream of pilgrims walking past her, barely 50 meters away.
She was born during the monsoon months of 1997 (between July and September) in the litter of three females. I had first seen her in February of 1998 and have been keeping a track of her ever since. By the beginning of 1999 she had started hunting on her own, the first sign that she was about to separate from her mother. Around then her mother ceded a par of her territory for Machali and that is where she has stayed since.
During the summer month of 2000 (somewhere in April) she mated with a large male tiger called “Bamboo Ram” and three and a half months later she gave birth to her first litter of two male cubs called Broken tail (because his tail was broken) and Slant ear (named so for no apparent reason). By the end of December 2001 both these cubs separated from Machali and we never saw Slant ear again. For about a year and a half Broken tail lived in a small territory at the edge of Ranthambhore national park, not really great neighborhood for tigers. Somewhere in the summers of 2003 Broken tail decided to leave Ranthambhore and in August 2003 a passenger train ran him down, in Darra sanctuary, about a 100 miles away from Ranthambhore.
Soon after Broken tail and Slant ear separated from Machali, she mated again with another male tiger called Nick ear. Bamboo Ram had died of old age when Broken tail and Slant ear were still with Machli and Nick ear had taken over his territory. By April 2002, Machali had given birth to her second litter. When I first saw these cubs, on 30th of June (the day before Ranthambhore closed for the monsoons) in the Nalghati valley, there were three cubs. She was carrying one in her mouth and the other two were following her. However, one of these cubs did not survive and when the Ranthambhore reopened for visitors in October there were only two cubs – a male called Jhumru and a female called Jhumri. By the end of 2004 Machali started mating again, this time with another large male tiger known as X male (so called because we do not know much about him). Around this time Ranthambore was under siege by tiger poachers and Nick ear had disappeared. Soon after her mating with X male she almost threw out Jhumru and Jhumree from her area. Jhumru set up his territory in an area called Lahpur. He could do this because the dominant male tigers of Lahpur (there were two of them) had been killed by poachers and the area was devoid of male tigers. We did not see Jhumree after she separated from Machali and we still do not know of her whereabouts.
Since Machali’s area included three of the six lakes of Ranthambhore, she had a lot of interactions with crocodiles. Interactions in which crocodiles almost always ended up dead. She passed on this skill to Jhumru and we know of at least one instance when he killed and even ate a crocodile. We have never come across any evidence to suggest that Jhumree also killed crocodiles. However, all these scraps with crocodiles did take their toll on Machali and by the summers of 2005 she had lost two of her canines (the upper and lower canines on the left side).
Around March 2005 Machali gave birth to her third litter of two cubs – a male called Bahadur (which means Brave in Hindi) and a female called Sharmelee (which means Shy in Hindi). These two cubs stayed with her till October 2006. When these cubs were young, all of us were scared that she may not be able to successfully rear them because she had lost two of her four canines. At that time we were pretty sure that this would be Machali’s last litter. She, however, surprised us all by giving birth to a fourth litter during the monsoon months of 2006. Unlike the previous three litters this time she has three cubs. Since then these three cubs – all females – grew up into handsome tigers known as T 17, T 18 and T 19. While T 18 was relocated to Sariska, T 17 died in the late winters of 2013 leaving behind three orphaned cubs and T 19 is now the new Machali.
Just got this message from Colin Stafford-Johnson – the man who named “Machali” –
“Was just reading Machali’s story! Good memories! Just for factual accuracy. Machali was actually named on the steps of my flat in West Park in Bristol. We knew Fateh had used the name for the mother. But Mike wanted to name her lady of the lakes. I suggested we call the daughter Machali as she had this mark on her face that reminded me of an angel fish. And I could never spot the fish mark on the mother. This may be lost to history but is what actually happened. Thereafter, on our next Danger shoot, she became Machali but she was named for the film ok.”